Friday, December 2, 2011

Melville and My Critics

Melville hated the critics and, for the most part, they hated him. Thanks to Kevin Hayes and Hershel Parker, we have a whole book that is a Checklist of Melville Reviews, and many of the contemporaneous reviews are available on-line, at, in particular.

Melville did not live to see the emergence of the Melville industry we have today, and one wonders if he would have softened at all in his hostility toward the critics. He certainly yearned for admiration and praise; it is written all over his letters to Hawthorne and all of the other letters and writings collected by the Parker and Harrison Hayford in the Northwestern-Newberry edition of his Correspondence and Journals. But he also did not suffer fools lightly, and had little truck for those who were not "deep, deep, deep".

In the industry that has emerged, endless academic squabbling often seems to occur over how one "solves" Moby Dick. Several keys to the solution are suggested. Careers are built on their advocacy.

Parker and Hayford, in their commentary in the Northwestern-Newberry Moby Dick and elsewhere, each are fond of explaining much through the analysis of textual irregularities: their discussion of "doubles", places where there is unnecessary duplication of material, and "hide-outs", places where a character who logically ought to be in the mix is not,is at least fascinating, even if it ultimately adds little to my personal appreciation and understanding of the book. These theories are related to their broader speculation that Moby Dick was the combination of two different book projects, and that Melville began writing the book conceiving of the captain as Blakenship and later grafting Ahab to an already growing stock. Likewise, they speculate that Queequeg came to occupy a position of importance only as the conception of the book changed midstream, and that at first he was but part of a Savage Chorus of three and not a boon companion to Ishmael.

Parker and Hayford also are fond of imposing an extraordinary level of what I call Shakespeare-determinism on the book, seeing at the core of Moby Dick an attempt by the ship-wright to virtually mimic the play-wright. This is a popular "key" to Moby Dick; they are hardly the only ones pushing this approach, and some of it comes from the wonderful Call Me Ishmael of Charles Olson (of which more anon). Bruce Franklin's counterproposal of the Isis/Osiris myth as the critical core of the book is a refreshing anti-dote, even if he comes perilously close to overplaying his hand in positing it as an alternative "solution".

As I approach the critics, Franklin, Olson, Yvor Winters, and a few others are my heros (even if Olson actively aspired to Ahabian anti-hero status and even if Winters said few things with which I actually agree). Each is a writer who I think fundamentally gets Moby Dick and helps us in our reading. These guys are "My Critics", and you can expect to hear more of them as we read.

As to Parker and Hayford, well, I really don't think they are sub-subs merely compiling random bits that shed little light; they are more simple sub-librarians, a step above the lowly sub-subs, finding information that is at least relevant if not always revealing. What is their fundamental flaw? How do we solve them?

I think in each case they don't fully get this book at the meta- level at which Melville dwelt; before diving in to figure out his meaning, that is, the fundamental theology of the book, one must pause to reflect on Melville's epistemology, and I think this book is at least as much epistemology as theology. The theology that some critics try to solve is all obscured by the biases of each of Melville's characters (including the author) and each of Melville's constructs. Cetology is a wonderful expample, where in classifying whales the learned Cetologists focus so heavily on commercial and gastronomic aspects. Part of that theology emerges from needs and desires of the characters: what do they need to see in the Whale, and what do they need in Ahab. In many ways, the book contains an homage to the yet-undiscovered uncertainty principle, and is thus purposefully insolvable. The critic who doesn't get this becomes but a librarian or a cetologist; the critic who gets it joins Melville at the Treadle of the Loom.

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